Lkhagvasuren Bavuu’s three-act tragedy The State Without a Seal is luridly and deftly brought to life in Hero Baatar’s stage adaptation of The Mongol Khan. Penned in 1998, the play consisted of 3000 lines of verse, and was seen by Bavuu as the zenith of his literary career. Baatar does this brilliant, gripping narrative justice in his dramatization, transforming it into a feast for the eyes. With a relatively short run of only 15 shows, this play, translated by John Man and adapted for the London Coliseum by Timberlake Wertenbaker, was one of the most uniquely compelling shows to grace a London stage.
Rooted in the nomadic traditions and folklore of the steppe, The Mongol Khan is a spectacle in every sense of the word. Set some 2000 years ago, the deliciously twisted plot is one of love, treachery, murder, power and sacrifice. It centers around Archug Khan, Hunnu emperor and ancestor of the infamous Genghis Khan. The Khan’s queen, Tsetser, and consort, Gurgel, give birth to sons within days of one another. Gurgel’s son is named heir, due to Archug Khan’s suspicions that Tsetser’s baby is not his own. The baby is, in fact, the product of an affair the queen has with Egereg, the Khan’s trusted counsellor. The treacherous Egereg’s desire for power pushes him to convince Tsetser to switch the babies in their cradles, causing a crisis of succession that jeopardizes and determines the fate of the empire.
The play progresses in a series of rich, dynamic scenes teeming with traditional Mongol music and dance. The music is booming and bellowing, suiting the scale of the play, yet has a haunting quality to it from the use of whistles and throat-singing. While the play builds to its climax—a vicious, electrifying battle between the Khan and Egereg—we are treated to a number of intricate, well-executed visuals. Of these, Gurgel’s stunning mourning scene is the most captivating. Others, such as the erotic scene between Tsetser and Egereg featuring contorting dancers in fleshlike bodysuits like some hedonistic fever dream, fall slightly flatter. And yet, the uniqueness of these visuals makes them all the more memorable, even if they don’t entirely serve the plot.
In a show such as this, characterized so much by motion, it’s unsurprising that the choreography is, by far, its standout element. The colourful costumes, elaborate set design, and creative props lend themselves to the strong, rhythmic, and graceful choreography. The foot-stomping, chest-pressing, arm-thrusting movements give the show its power and stupendous scale, as does the awe-inducing coordination of its 70 backup dancers.
While Erdenebileg Ganbold’s portrayal of Archug Khan was distinctive and brilliant, it was Uranchimeg Urtnasan as Queen Tsetser who truly stole the show. Her performance was evocative, with a voice that secured attention and sympathies in its gravity and sheer presence—particularly in her final confrontation with Egereg, which was easily one of the play’s most gripping scenes. Bold-Erdene Sugar as Egereg and Dulguun Odkhuu as Gurgel also held their own, in compelling, nearly faultless performances.
The entirety of the production is in Mongolian, with English subtitles appearing on screens on all four sides of the stage. Unfortunately, the positioning of these subtitle screens did mean that one often ran the risk of missing the action onstage while attempting to read them. However, that is more of a technical issue than a fault with the show itself. While relatively thin in terms of actual plot, The Mongol Khan was still a spectacular show. From the stellar optics to the drum-like speeches and traditional music, Baatar successfully brought a part of Mongolian tradition alive on a London stage, resulting in one of the most visually memorable, mesmerising productions that I’ve ever had the pure privilege of witnessing.
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.